LGBTQ+ History Month Special: Ian Thorpe, Australia’s National Hero

By October 10, 2018 No Comments

In October, the USA and other countries observe LGBTQ+ History month. This month, SAGA (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance) and The Sundial Press are collaborating each week to highlight this history. Short, sweet and scintillating, we hope you enjoy them.


In a nation that idealises its swimmers to an almost unrivaled degree, Thorpey became Australia’s youngest male world champion swimmer at the age of 14, winning more medals than any other Australian. Despite coming into the public eye at such a young age, it was only in 2014 that he publicly came out.

Thorpe, born in Western Sydney in 1982 had a stereotypical, idyllic childhood. He grew up in the suburbs with public education and an appreciation for the local pool. Coming from quite a sporty family, Thorpe followed his older sister into the pool at the young age of five even though he had an allergy to chlorine. This comically inconvenient allergy saw him compete in his first race at age seven whilst keeping his head above the water — a kind of doggy paddle meets freestyle. Absurd? Yes. But what is more absurd is that he won.


Ian Thorpe. Photo: Xia Ming


From the past to the present, it is impossible to overemphasise Thorpe’s celebrity. Judged to be the greatest freestyle swimmer Australia has seen in decades, he is also the youngest ever winner of the title of World Swimmer of the Year, winning this award not once but thrice. Amidst the hype surrounding the build-up to the 2000 Olympics, he won the Young Australian of the Year award, assuming the year-long mantle of a nation’s adoration. His accomplishments are more appropriate to list in a swimming magazine than the Sundial Press, but needless to say they are historic.

And yet fame eventually took its toll.

Upon entering his first retirement, the media did not see this as an invitation to withdraw but instead push more into his personal life. The public could not seem to get enough and dogged him with speculation about his mental health, and rumours regarding his sexuality. It was not until 2014, having definitively ended his swimming career and transitioned into civic life as a keen activist for Indigenous rights, that he came out. At the time, Thorpe talked about the scars such coverage had brought.

With Thorpe, we can see a very typical experience of self-discovery that finds itself in a tragically public forum. As is the case for many who have not come out, the uncertainty of his friends and family’s reaction was a large source of hesitation — to say nothing of the general public’s reaction. He said that his public outing was a result of two desires. First, to act as a role model to young children, especially athletes, who feel “internally conflicted” about their sexuality. Second, it was a result of his own personal self-acceptance since growing up under a microscope left him no time for self-discovery. He has expressed that one of the reasons he struggled with his sexuality was not the fear of intolerance, but because he was not exactly sure what his sexuality was.


Ian Thorpe at the launch of Close the Gap, a campaign to raise the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia. Photo: Antar Sea of Hands


Thorpe currently continues to campaign for Indigenous rights and mental health issues, as well as participating in the Australian swimming squad’s young talent mentoring programme. He and his boyfriend participated in high-profile media appearances during last year’s Marriage Equality Plebiscite (Thorpe signed up to vote quicker than his boyfriend could swim 100 metres). Today, Thorpe is an active member of the queer community. Sadly, he remains one of only a few ‘out’ Australian athletes.


Alex is the co-President of SAGA and is from Sydney, Australia. This is the most interest he’s shown in sports for over twenty years.


Cover photo: Michiel Jelijs 

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